In a study funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, researchers found evidence that a healthy lifestyle may result in longer telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age and die, which in turn affect our own rate of aging and mortality. The intention of the study was to explore the relationship between comprehensive lifestyle changes and telomere length.

“Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate,” lead author Dean Ornish, a UC San Francisco clinical professor of medicine, stated in a press release.  If our genes do not indicate our destiny, what does?

Experiment

Participants in the study were 35 men with localized, early-stage prostate cancer. For five years, the researchers followed these patients via active surveillance, which involves closely monitoring a patient’s condition through screening and biopsies. At the outset of the study, 10 of the men changed their lifestyles comprehensively. These modifications included adopting a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables, and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates), exercising moderately (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week), and reducing stress (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, and meditation). These 10 patients also participated in weekly group support meetings.

The other 25 men made no changes whatsoever to their lifestyle. Next, the researchers took blood samples at five years and compared the telomere length and telomerase enzymatic activity with measures taken at the beginning of the study, and then they compared and analyzed the results in relation to the degree of lifestyle changes.

Discovery

Telomerase is the enzyme that protects the telomeres, and it is found in fetal tissues, adult germ cells, and tumor cells. Telomerase prevents decline by lengthening telomeres, and its absence of activity in certain cells is the reason they age, which in turn causes the entire body to age. In past studies, scientists have found that by activating telomerase in a cell, the cell continues to grow and divide, thus becoming ‘immortal.’

When the researchers compared the telomeres and telomerase activity in the 35 men, they found surprising results. Telomere length increased by approximately 10 percent in the group of 10 men who had changed their lifestyle, while it decreased by about three percent in the group of 25 men who had made no lifestyle changes whatsoever. The researchers also found that the more the men followed the improved lifestyle program, the more dramatic their telomere length.

The researchers say that they hope the results will inspire larger trials to test the validity of the findings. “These findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life,” Ornish stated in press release.

Psychology

Another aspect of our lives that may accelerate aging is psychological health. Dutch researchers hypothesized that neuroticism may lead to an increased rate telomere attrition. Their study included 3,432 adult participants ranging in age from 32 to 79. The researchers collected data at the outset of the study and at two follow-up visits after four years and six years. Neuroticism was assessed, and telomere length was measured at each visit. After adjusting for age, sex, body mass index (BMI), frequency of sports, smoking status, presence of chronic diseases, and level of education, the researchers assessed and analyzed their findings.

What did they discover? Neuroticism predicted shorter telomerase length. “High neuroticism is significantly and prospectively associated with telomere attrition independent of lifestyle and other risk factors,” wrote the authors. Clearly, to slow the aging process, a person must strive to be healthy in all ways.

 

Sources: Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, et al. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. The Lancet Oncology. 2013.

Van Ockenburg SL, de Jonge P, van der Harst P, Ormel J, Rosmalen JG. Does neuroticism make you old? Prospective associations between neuroticism and leukocyte telomere length. Psychological Medicine. 2013.